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Is Brighton’s hospitality scene really booming?

With new restaurants and cafés popping up across the city on a seemingly daily basis, Nick Mosley asks ‘is Brighton’s hospitality scene really booming?’

Looking at the main shopping streets of Brighton, it’s hard to imagine we’ve just come out of a global pandemic and are currently in the midst of the biggest cost-of-living crisis in decades fuelled by hyperinflation and the threat of petrifyingly high interest rates. Yet vacant units aren’t remaining empty for long but it’s hospitality business not retailers who are filling the gaps.

We’re all well aware of the rising cost of energy and the spiralling cost of everyday food at the supermarket. Most of us are being a lot more cautious in our spending, aware that life’s essentials – mortgage or rent payments, gas bills and putting food on the table – are all getting more expensive yet wages are failing to keep up with prices. So who on earth would be opening a new eatery full in the knowledge that consumers have less pennies in their pockets?

Despite the doom and gloom in the national and global economy, Brighton’s food and drink sector appears – on the outside at least – to be booming. Surely something strange is at play? Well, yes and no.

The past few years has seen somewhat of a revolution in the make-up of our high streets. Although big name and independent fashion and homeware retailers have gone to the wall, property landlords can’t sit around and wait for a new suitable tenant. Or rather they can as long as they’re happy to bankroll the business rates themselves, which let’s face it is pretty daft. A somewhat more attractive option for most, in order to offload that financial liability and gain at least some income, is to offer short term lets to businesses and one of the cheapest start-up formats is that of a café or coffee shop.

Essentially, all you need a few fixtures and fittings, running water and few electrical sockets to plug in a fridge, sandwich toaster and coffee machine. Stick an eye-catching logo on the window then, other than basic food and hygiene certification, no particular requirements or skills are needed. I’m not saying its not bloody hard work but it’s a fairly straightforward and low cost business model for anyone with the inclination. Make it a family affair and you can also benefit from a low wage bill.

But does the mantra ‘if we build it, people will come’ stand? It appears it does, in Brighton at least, with consumer demand for cheap, tasty food remaining pretty constant in recent months, driven by convenience and to some degree laziness. Even with the economic squeeze, many young people in employment don’t have huge overheads as they are living with friends or their families so disposable cash for little treats is still jingling in their pockets and purses.

And, without doubt, older demographics are still dining out, if perhaps a little less frequently. I know from my weekly restaurant reviews that most venues are now offering set price menus and discounted early dining so it is perfectly feasible to get a decent two or even three course meal for £15-20. A couple of year’s ago I wouldn’t even have looked at the menu du jour but its now the first thing I reach for when I sit down.

That’s not to say that there aren’t losers in this brave new world of hospitality. Fine dining hadn’t even recovered from the fall-out of Covid before being hit by the tonne of bricks that is the current cost-of-doing-business crunch. For restaurants that aren’t an integral part of a larger business such as a hotel, these are desperate times with soaring overheads, ongoing staffing issues and consumers no longer willing to pay for multiple-course tasting menus and premium wines. To survive, the higher end of the restaurant sector will need to work on wafer thin margins and try to cut costs without impacting on the guest experience. That’s a tough nut to crack with no light currently at the end of the tunnel.

But our city does have a benefit that similar sized towns and cities around the UK don’t have: we are a tourism-led economy. Tourism South East’s most recent economic analysis of the sector – which admittedly was pre-pandemic in 2019 but is the best report we have to go on – estimated just over 24,000 jobs in the city were directly or indirectly connected to the visitor economy. Although many of these are inevitably at the lower end of the wage market, what this clearly demonstrates is that our tourism industry is historically fairly resilient. Indeed anyone who walked along Brighton seafront this summer could see we weren’t short of visitors.

The golden egg for tourism economies such as ours is overnight guests, and particularly overnight guests from overseas as they statistically stay longer and spend more. Although I doubt many of us are particularly over-the-moon about the very recent crash in the value of the pound against the dollar, euro and other major global currencies, it does make the UK a very attractive and affordable place to fly, sail or rail into for a holiday. This is most definitely reflected in hotel rates in the city as a cursory glance at Expedia shows there are no bargains to be had when it comes to overnight accommodation.

There will be winners and losers in the hospitality sector. Be prepared to see some well-known Brighton restaurants who are unable – or unwilling – to adapt go to the wall but also take heart that new, innovative and highly adaptive food and drink businesses are entering the market. Our tourism-led economy – that makes Brighton and Hove such an amazing and dynamic place to live, work and play – will take a battering but we will survive.

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